Take the Isle Royale ferries or seaplanes from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to get to one of the least visited, but most re-visited, U.S. national parks.
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Reachable only by public ferry, private boat, or seaplane, Isle Royale is mostly a spectacular northwoods wilderness with not a single road. Isle Royale National Park is a rugged, isolated island in Lake Superior about 55 miles northwest of Copper Harbor, MI, just off the tip of the Keweenaw Peninsula. It is Michigan’s only national park and one of very few island national parks in the U.S. From Fresh Coast Cabins, getting to or from the island is super accessible, making it an excellent spot to begin or end your island adventure.
Are the Isle Royale ferries easy to take?
The short answer is “yes!” You have several options depending on where you want to launch, plus some logistics to keep in mind when planning your trip. Taking the time to do your research and make your reservation–think a year out–in advance is key.
Option 1: Take The Ranger III from Houghton, Michigan
If you want to set off to Isle Royale on a ferry from Houghton, MI, then you’ll take The Ranger III. It’s a 165 foot long, 34 feet wide, 648 ton vessel run by a nine-person National Park Service crew. The 73 mile journey to Rock Harbor (the island’s port) takes six hours each way, so plan for a full day on the boat! We think of it more like a proletariat cruise than a ferry ride because of how scenic the beginning of the journey is. Traveling through the Portage Canal out to Lake Superior is a spectacular cruise.
During the first hour of the trip, the ship navigates the scenic Keweenaw Waterway, passing under the world’s largest lift bridge. Once on the open water of Lake Superior, you’ll see for yourself the size and breadth of the world’s largest freshwater lake. There is truly nothing like your first time. As Isle Royale approaches, the picturesque seascape transitions to a rugged, lichen-covered shoreline and the historic Rock Harbor Lighthouse for those traveling to Rock Harbor.
Leaving Isle Royale will be painful just like it is for us each time we have to do it, but when you’re ready to take the ferry home, you’ll hop on from Rock Harbor which is the only spot with amenities and services on the entire island.
Passenger service is offered from the end of May through early September annually. Learn more and book your online reservation on The Ranger III from the National Park Service Isle Royale visitors guide.
Option 2: Take the Isle Royale Queen IV from Copper Harbor, Michigan
To start off a bit closer to the island and shorten your trip time, head out from Copper Harbor. It’s only three miles up the road from Fresh Coast Cabins, making it an excellent jumping-off point for your journey.
The Queen IV is a privately owned and operated concessionaire of the US National Park Service. This beautiful vessel is 100 feet long, made of aluminum, and equipped with three diesel engines, making it very fast! This trip is only three hours each way, just half the time it takes leaving from Houghton.
Option 3: Ferry round-trip to Isle Royale in one day
Unlike The Ranger III, you can do the round trip in one day on the Isle Royale Queen IV. This is great if your time is limited and you’d prefer not to stay overnight on Isle Royale.
You’ll spend seven and a half hours on the water and about three hours on Isle Royale. That’s enough time for roughly two hours of hiking after your orientation with the Park Service. You can take a long hike of up to four miles or a short hike and have lunch at Rock Harbor Lodge. Or you can fish, explore, relax, and enjoy the great views along Rock and Tobin Harbors.
The Isle Royale Queen IV typically operates from early May through the end of September. Learn more and book your reservation online from The Isle Royale Line website.
Can I take a seaplane to Isle Royale?
Yes, you can take a seaplane to Isle Royale and spoiler, this is our favorite option for several reasons. Why? First is the expedited trip time of only 35 minutes in comparison to three or six hours on a ferry, but mainly it’s for the scenery! From the air, you can appreciate the scale of the island, Lake Superior, and the surrounding area to a degree that’s simply not possible any other way.
45-mile-long Isle Royale is surrounded by 400 smaller island segments, creating an archipelago of some of the most secluded and untouched hardwood forests in Michigan. Arriving on the island always feels like something out of a movie, but the seaplane ride gives you unforgettable aerial views—have your camera ready!
Their operating season is typically from mid-May through mid-September. Overnight and day-trip visits are offered.
Take a seaplane to Isle Royale from Hancock, Michigan
Isle Royale Seaplanes is the sole operator offering seaplane transportation to Isle Royale National Park. Their main office and contact center is in Hancock, Michigan along the Keweenaw Waterway. Flights originate from there (and from the Cook County Airport in Grand Marais, Minnesota). Both departure bases provide service to Windigo and Rock Harbor on Isle Royale.
You’ll want to book your reservation well in advance as they do fill up quickly, in peak season especially.
Can I backpack Isle Royale?
Backpacking Isle Royale Michigan is just one of the many outdoor activities that draw people from around the world to this beautiful, isolated spot, and it’s a trip we try to take once every summer. In the summer of 2020, Lynn did the trip in five days with her favorite adventure buddy—her mom!
Check out our Q&A with Lynn wherein she shares tips for planning your own backpacking trip to Isle Royale—America’s most revisited national park.
Are there any accommodations on Isle Royale?
If you want to skip the tent or try to find a shelter on your trip to Isle Royale (no judgment here—we love cabins for a reason!), there are two accommodation options at opposite ends of the island from which to choose.
Rock Harbor Lodge
Located along the shore of Lake Superior on Isle Royale, the Rock Harbor Lodge has rooms with private baths and housekeeping cottages to stay in. Their services include a dining room, snack bar, gift shop, dockside store, marina, rental motor boats, kayaks and canoes, and guided fishing and sightseeing tours.
You can stay in comfort at the lodge and still experience all the rugged wilderness the island has to offer by day. Explore Passage Island and Rock Harbor Lighthouses via their sightseeing boat, hike to scenic lookout points, or visit the site of an ancient copper mine. All of this and more is at your doorstep, minus sleeping on the ground. Book your room or cottage on the Rock Harbor Lodge website.
Windigo Camper Cabins
Located 45 miles from Rock Harbor Lodge in Washington Harbor at the Southwest end of the island, the two Windigo camper cabins are rustic, one-room cabins that provide a unique alternative to tent camping. We’ve stayed there and love it, but be sure to read the fine print before you pull the trigger because there are no basic amenities like indoor plumbing or AC and heat.
These cabins do book up for the entire season within a week of reservations opening (typically in January), so this is something to plan well in advance of your trip. Learn more and reserve a Windigo camper cabin on the Rock Harbor Lodge website.
What should I do in Michigan before and after my trip to Isle Royale?
Planning a trip to Isle Royale should absolutely involve a Keweenaw cabin rental [insert cabins skyscraper article] before and/or after the journey! You’re traveling so far to get to the island to have an incredible national park experience on the island itself, but Isle Royale and the Keweenaw Peninsula are connected.
“Fresh Coast Cabins was integral to our successful Isle Royale trip, and three days of clean accommodations and hot showers, while still in the rugged Lake Superior wilderness, are just as important as we reacclimate to reality.”-Stephanie Vermillion, Travel + Leisure Magazine
Check out the full Travel + Leisure article about Fresh Coast Cabins, “These Cozy New Cabins Are the Perfect Gateway to Michigan’s Isle Royale National Park.”
Keweenaw adventure inspiration
Need a few ideas to bookend your Isle Royale trip? We have over 20 years spent on these roads, in these woods, and supporting this community. Let us help!
Our Keweenawland guide book brings together the sweet spots and off-the-beaten-path adventures in this beautiful peninsula we call home. Explore, hike, or relax through 30 different adventures featuring beautiful local photography to help you plan your perfect getaway.
These personally curated Keweenaw day trip guides are perfect for active, adventurous travelers with time to explore. We’ll inspire you to get out and move by packing each day with adventures like hikes, waterfalls, nature sanctuaries, local history, plus delicious local food and drinks.
Do you have a question we didn’t answer about taking a ferry or seaplane to Isle Royale? Thinking about planning a trip to the Keweenaw and don’t know where to start? Reach out to us—we’d love to talk!